Wednesday, October 11, 2017

With Respect to Running Times, Racing Has a Crediblity Gap

While parimutuel takeout and the Keeneland boycott have dominated the discussion in recent weeks, there is a matter of urgency that not only effects horseplayers but the very foundation and history of Thoroughbred racing itself: The timing of races.

Whether it is how one horse matches up against another in today’s race, or whether Arrogate is the historical equal of Seattle Slew, visual interpretations notwithstanding, it is axiomatic that running time is the only absolute truth in the game.

Presently there is credibility crisis in terms of how accurate the running times you see posted on the tote board and in past performances are. This has been at issue for several years, the most egregious example being the incorrect time of the 2017 Pegasus.

This week, however, the prominent Pace Advantage, a prominent racing message board, and Twitter has blown up because of the incorrect timing issues that have occurred with regularity at the current Santa Anita race meet.

Timing and past performance company Trakus published three charts from this past Saturday without running times listed, including intra-race fractions and final clocking, because the originally posted times were inaccurate.

Once this credibility gap was exposed and social media got involved, Jeff Platt, founder and president of Horseplayers Association of North America, made Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board aware of the Internet discussions.

Santa Anita and the CHRB acted appropriately with dispatch and handled the matter correctly. All races are now hand-timed in addition to electronic timing. When obvious mistakes occur, the correct hand-timed clocking becomes the official time of that race.

No reasonable person should have a problem with this approach, whereby tracks use official timers as a fail-safe in the interests of accuracy. Here’s why:

The most dominant driver of racing’s liquid economies, from the betting windows to the sales ring, are the “Sheets” products produced by Ragozin and Thoro-Graph. Horses are managed on the information contained therein. They provide the most meaningful measure of when horses go in and out of their form cycles.

No high six- or seven-figure purchases “off the racetrack,” or even claims, are made without knowing what kind of “Sheets number” a horse has run, an indication of both present ability shown and a projection of how fast it might run in the future.

There are other variables involved: Age and pedigree readily come to mind. And, of course, with respect to private purchases, no deal is made without a veterinary inspection.

It has been conservatively estimated--and empirically correct—that three of every four dollars wagered is made by Sheets players, including those arbitrageurs who rock the tote board in the final minute of wagering.

Parenthetically, not knowing whether you made a value play for certain until the field reaches the half-mile pole is another factor that is chasing some players away. But that’s a conversation for another day.

California is now using professional clockers, paid by the racetrack, to fail-safe timing mechanisms. If I can trust a workout indicating that Arrogate’s 5-furlong move on Oct. 10 was 1:00.20, the fastest of 40 at the distance.

Most fans and bettors readily accept workout reports and these published works are the result of a single take. When it comes to hand-timing races, multiple video-takes are considered before a more accurate average is considered official information.

This is the way it’s always been done, in the modern era going back to Secretariat’s Preakness. HRI’s Mark Berner, who retired after decades in the employ of Teletimer, hand-timed every race.

If there were an obvious malfunction, he would time a race thrice, confer with NYRA’s Official Timer, before posting an official clocking for the race.

While racetracks don’t set out to intentionally deceive the public, the industry stays well clear of making embarrassing waves, as opposed to transparently doing the right thing.

With respect to Santa Anita’s recent timing issues, credit the CHRB for finally getting something right.

Timing discrepancies are the result of many variables. A trifecta of trouble is the run-up—the distance between the starting gate and times poles; pole position placement itself, and the big kahuna of quandary, the use of temporarily rails on the turf course.

Various solutions mentioned are very costly timing apparatus used by sports leagues, impractical except for the A+ venues, timing from gate to wire, minus the run-up, which still leaves intra-race splits in question, or use the same standards in place now.

But whatever the methodology, the use of a professional Official Timer, whose name should be listed in the official track program, is the best fail-safe of all. Replication by a professional is the best insurer of accuracy, as was suggested by HRI last winter.

At the 2016-17 Gulfstream championship meet, there were many timing discrepancies, especially on the turf course where the track has the ability to move the temporary rail to six different positions.

Races in which the inner rail was placed in the middle of the course were particularly suspect and still remain dubious. We have been assured that the issue will be remedied in time for the 2017-18 championship meet launch in December.

The wish is that Gulfstream will follow California’s lead and announce that a trusted professional will be in place to insure accuracy. Timing races accurately should be part of the rules and regulations that tracks adhere to when granted a license by their states to operate.

For a business that’s dependent on data-driven gambling to succeed, only accurate information will allow customers to make informed decisions. The past, present and future of the sport depends on it.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 11, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Horseplayers No Longer Crying in the Wilderness

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But in this case it’s more about the horse race industry working at cross purposes with its customers in the interests of commerce than anything else.

In this weekend’s edition of Horse Racing Nation “Insider,” the publication offered “FREE PICKS for KEENELAND STAKES!” Any NCIS fan can quote you chapter and verse Rule #37, according to Special Agent Jethro Gibbs: “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.”

It follows that the Cross-Country Pick 4, combining four Grade 1s at Belmont and Keeneland was also being heavily promoted, including “a 15-1 shot you can’t leave off your tickets,” with FREE Shadwell Mile PPs to sweeten the deal.

This is not meant to assess blame for bet-takers promoting their business but it is interesting that this “Insider” edition happened to coincide with a horseplayer’s boycott at Keeneland which dubiously insisted raised takeout was meant attract the best horses.

As if that weren’t going to happen, anyway. Clearly, this was a move to mirror the higher Churchill Downs takeout rates in place for years now, creating synergy should the two racing behemoths be given permission to encroach on other regional Kentucky tracks.

It would be also fair to ask whether these increases are in place at the Red Mile harness track. Is that Keeneland-owned property also a non-for-profit venture?

The highly touted Fall Champions Weekend that began opening day thus far has played to mixed betting results. Despite record attendance for Friday’ Fall opener, handle was flat year over year.

However, Saturday’s mega-card, featuring an All Stakes Pick Five—two Grade 2s and three Grade 1s--attracted 14.4% less handle than did the same number of races in 2016 and with two more betting interests, according to racing activists.

In advance of the Keeneland opener, the Horseplayers Association of North America and issued a joint announcement that a horseplayer boycott would take place to show that bettors resent being insulted by the false propaganda circulated.

Keeneland’s significant takeout increase was enacted despite the fact that Historic Racing machines at the Red Mile property have produced revenue increases for the parent company that insists on sticking with its false narrative.

Never mind that a takeout increase seven years ago resulted in an on-track dip of 27% at Los Alamitos. Or that a boycott of Santa Anita and Golden Gate the following year ultimately resulted in purse cuts, not increases, giving rise to significant employee layoffs at Santa Anita.

And never mind that the takeout increase at Churchill Downs three years later gave rise to a 25% handle dip at the spring meet, Kentucky Derby weekend notwithstanding, and also a 20% purse cut the following Fall.

The lesson here is that the loyal horseplayer base is mad as hell and not only are they not going to take it anymore but they’re actually doing something about it.

Even if the boycott does not reach its stated goal of 25-30% handle decrease at the Keeneland meet, the horseplayer boycott is getting coverage and gaining momentum in racing establishment media this time around and not treated as some passing fad.

The horseplayers who really care about the state of the game going forward are taking a stand and their voice is being amplified. A message is being sent and that real news is this: We’re here and won’t be taken for granted any longer.

And so the future is in the industry’s hands now, not ours. The chickens are back in their homes roosting. For how long only the business can say.


BELMONT PARK: The longer uncoupled portion of the Chad Brown entry takes the opener and will be the start of a huge day for Irad Ortiz… Copper Town takes a preliminary allowances at 1-1/16 miles impressively and it appears Todd Pletcher is going to have a lot of fun with him this winter at Gulfstream Park.

Disco Partner,
giving Irad his first of three stakes on the day, is one of this country’s classiest turf sprinters and proved it again in the Belmont Turf Sprint at 6 furlongs. They’ll be going shorter than that around those tight turf turns at Del Mar next month…

Montauk was strongly rumored to be Pletcher’s best 2-year-old. Nothing he did in his 7-furlong debut belied that opinion. Awesome performance, very bright future…Firenze Fire’s experience, and Irad strength and timing, the difference in the Champagne but Belmont's classic juvenile test not the strongest we’ve ever seen.

Yoshida finally breaks through but getting through some tight quarters, Manny Franco, in midst of a career year, helping to make the difference aboard one of the unluckiest horses at Spa meet. Love this animal but not sure he’s quite ready for a world stage, but give Bill Mott time…

New York-bred Diversify has really come into his own as a late season gelded 4-year-old taking the centerpiece Gold Cup under brilliant Irad rating, making some mid-race separation and leaving Keen Ice and Pavel with too much to do.

Their private stretch battle the latter two had allowed leader to get away. Not sure the Breeders’ Cup Classic favorites feel seriously threatened this a.m. Meanwhile, excellent work by Rick Violette, getting Diversify and peak at the Spa maintain that form in October.

KEENELAND: The stars on Friday were Whitmore, who looks like he’s back and with something in reserve for the Sprint. Whether he’s ready for Drefong is another issue, and Mark Casse with a training triple.

Did we mention Alcibiades winner Heavenly Love? Let’s put it this way; her dominant victories on Kentucky Downs turf and in Friday’s dirt 1-1/16 miles were like if Ruffian were turned inside-out. She has incredible late foot.

Heavenly Love vs. Moonshine Memories; East meets West in Juvenile Fillies. Can’t wait to see this one.

Happy for the connections who really enjoyed Bucchero’s victory in G2 Woodford, the 5YO sprinter taking advantage by sitting behind runoff speed. But he’ll be facing a different kind of competition and dynamics at the seaside course next month. Good job of pointing, Tim Glyshaw

Same can be said of Bret Calhoun who had Finley’sluckycharm fresh and fit enough to take the G2 Thoroughbred Club of America despite Brian Hernandez’s quixotic handling and should be a presence in the F&M Sprint but will meet much, much tougher next time…

Lament the passing of Ten City who appeared to be heading for victory in the Breeders’ Futurity before taking a bad step on the stretch turn, suffering an irreparably fatal injury...

Happy for Dale Romans who stretched Free Drop Billy out successfully, setting up another East-West confrontation in the Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro will be a deserving favorite given his explosive score in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner last weekend…

Well ridden, fast-finishing Suedois raced strongly through the wire and galloped out well for Team O’Meara/Tudhope. He’ll be meeting better European peers next month but he sure looked good taking the G1 Shadwell.

Heart to Heart never got a breather but Mott’s Ballagh Rocks made a very good, sustained late run and should benefit from Saturday’s effort.

Casse, not known for having his first-timers pumped up for debut but $1.5 million purchase Curlin’s Honor broke maiden as the heavy favorite with a classy, come-again victory beneath Julien Leparoux, who’s gotten off fast looking for his sixth Keeneland title. Winner’s best races appear ahead of him. (Runnerup Fascilitator a likely maiden breaker next time out but probably will go favored).


Blackjackcat was a clear winner of the Obviously Mile but doesn't appear to be a serious threat a month from now and Roy H. looked good winning the Santa Anita Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship. Six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, with a final quarter in 23 3/5 over the tiring strip is to be respected. Next time the waters will be much deeper, however.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Finally, a Win

Like any horseplayer, I’m very pleased that IRS regulations regarding income tax reporting and mandated withholdings finally has been amended to reflect modern horse wagering reality.

Of course, the lengthy wait could have been averted had legislators asked the advice of industry stakeholders, any industry stakeholder, from the start.

But the industry itself must share culpability. Why? Because whenever it goes to Washington or into statehouses, it doesn’t speak with one voice. Considering that many tracks still do a bad job coordinating post times, this was, admittedly, more complex.

Conclusively, common sense has been applied to the 300-1 payoff provision, reflecting the amount wagered into a pool where potential boxcar payoffs are the rule rather than the exception. The good news is that there will be a lot fewer “signers” at every level.

Today if you made a simple $1 Trifecta box of three horses, a cost of $6, a $602 payoff does not reach the 300-1 mandate for reporting those winnings in the IRS. The new provision, finally, takes into account the sum total of the “investment.”

Of course, this change benefits wagering 1-percenters who bet much more money than it does the average player/fan. This is a huge boon to bettors who invest $2,000 chasing a Pick Six carryover pool, one that wins and pays $20,000.

The $18,000 score made above is the equivalent of betting on a 9-1 winning horse straight. A nice hit, sure, but by definition hardly a windfall.

In another context, allowing bettors to keep more of their winnings helps all stakeholders just as, say, lowering the parimutuel takeout would.

This is, for legislators who may be reading this, is what’s called churn. Human gambling nature being what it is, the more winning players get back the more they bet in return. When this is allowed to play out over time, it works. Revenues eventually increase.

The dichotomy is that it’s OK if gamblers are made to cool their heels but bet-takers don’t have to be as patient, allotting time to allow the process to do what it always has done; create more business. Generally, racetracks have taken a one-meet-and-done position.

In a statement released Tuesday, the change in regulations is expected to increase the amount wagered on U.S. pari-mutuel racing by as much as 10 percent annually, at this juncture about $1 billion per year.

At first blush this estimate seems more hopeful than real, but were willing to take a wait and see stance. If wishes were horses, the hope is that we’re wrong and that the estimators prove, well, estimable.

Parenthetically, if only this could have been coupled with the elimination of breakage, those pennies from every payoff that hurts bettors at every level every day, especially the little bettor that needs to grind out profits. But I digress.

The official regulations will be published in Wednesday’s edition of the Federal Register and scheduled to go into effect Thursday if bet-takers can make it happen. Figure that all will get their accounting acts together ASAP.

Obviously, two words can sum up why all bet-takers should hurry their preparations forward: Breeders’ Cup.

Breeders’ Cup event days serve dual purposes; one is to crown potential champions, the other is to generate huge handle which benefits everyone who happens to be tethered to the industry, most especially the player.

Value will be available most everywhere on November 3rd and 4th at Del Mar and betting venues everywhere. Pool size is the result of large fields, competitive racing and heightened interest. The two days of Breeders’ Cup provides all that and more.

None of this would have happened without the considerable efforts of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The NTRA is the industry’s marketing arm and deserves props for eventually getting the job done.

Common sense dictates that this should have been a sprint. Instead, making this kind of progress, like everything else in this game, turns out to be a marathon. Meanwhile, we should be happy to celebrate winning for a change.

OK. What’s next?

Written by John Pricci

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